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Microplastics and the River Medway – understanding our environmental impact

04 June 2021

In recognition of World Environment Day on 5 June and World Ocean Day on 8 June, our National Portfolio Organisation Programme Coordinator, Hannane Ford, joined forces with Living River Foundation to collect samples of microplastic from the River Medway.

Living River Foundation  is a local not for profit organisation set up to monitor and raise awareness to protect and improve the Thames and Medway rivers.

Microplastics are tiny fragments of plastic which can unfortunately become embedded into the natural environment and are now present within the air, soil, rivers and oceans.

Read Hannane’s blog on her first experience of microplastic surveying on the River Medway, with ocean advocate and one of the founders of the foundation, Tanya Ferry…

When I think about Medway, I think of the river. Whether it’s overlooking the Dockyard, which serves as a reminder of our maritime heritage, or the backdrop along one of the many river walks, the River Medway is ever present.

We all know that water is the source of life and this is no different for the River Medway and its estuary marshes, which provide the perfect place for breeding and wintering birds such as heron, marsh harriers, lapwing and little egrets.

Tanya and I spent a very a chilly but rewarding Saturday morning on the Medway searching for the tiny fragments of plastic, which measure less than five micrometres. Some microplastics are manufactured intentionally and others are formed over time, when larger plastic items such as plastic bags become brittle and break down.

We travelled by boat to two sample sites and upon reaching the coordinates; we deployed our manta net over the side of the vessel. River water collected from the mouth of the net, flowed through to the small container attached to end of the net (the container is known as a cod end). The net mesh measures 0.3mm, so any debris larger than that is captured by the cod end.

After fifteen minutes had passed, we reeled the manta net in, removed the cod end from the net and drained the contents into a stack of sieve trays. The top sieve revealed mainly organic matter, sediment, seaweed, reeds and jellyfish, which we carefully placed back into the river. But as we de-stacked the sieve trays and the sieve mesh began to narrow, we started to see tiny plastic fragments within the sediment. These plastic fragments are difficult to detect (just imagine how the wildlife must feel) yet when you really look for them, you realise they are prevalent.

We used small hand tools to collect the microplastics from each sieve and placed into glass jars. These jars will now be sent to Brunel University for analysis as part of a strategic study of microplastic within the Medway Estuaries and Thames. The results of the study will be published at the end of the year.

Tanya had asked me if I could identify some of the plastic I had collected from the sieves. I recalled seeing blue fragments that almost looked like chipped paint, synthetic fibres as well as what appeared to be typical microbeads. To my surprise, Tanya informed me that although microbeads were banned in 2018 in the manufacture of rinse-off products (such as toothpaste and scrubs) it is still widely used in domestic cleaning products such as laundry detergents and washing-up liquid.

Being able to witness first hand the presence of microplastic in the River Medway  made me realise the collective responsibility it takes to protect our environment, our wildlife and each other. What may seem as simple everyday consumer choices can have a long-lasting impact – so we need to be able to make our choices wisely and sustainably.

We all have a part to play and it starts with being aware of the issues to create positive change. Here at the Dockyard we are currently developing an Environmental Impact Strategy to ensure we continue to operate ethically and sustainably and to empower our visitors and all users of the site to do the same. The Dockyard is fortunate to have a thriving community that are actively engaging with us on environmental issues and we will continue to drive this agenda forward for the benefit of all.

I would like to thank Tanya and Richard Bain of the foundation for taking the time to let me experience microplastic surveying first hand and I look forward to working with them again in the future to further understand the environmental impact microplastics have on our natural environment.

 

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